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Blanchette: Hayford takes the plunge

His commute to the gym is 24 miles longer now and takes him close by his old one, a daily reminder of the plunge he’s taken.

“I went from fresh water,” Jim Hayford allowed, “into salt water. It’s just a different world.”

Someone else might say from the koi pond to the shark tank, but hey – Hayford’s a competitor. He wants to win, and often. He might have established his bona fides amid the gentle ripples at Whitworth University, but he has some shark in him, too.

So it’s not altogether surprising that after just 14 games as the head coach at Eastern Washington, Hayford has the Eagles showing a little bite of their own.

Another test comes along Thursday night, when overwhelming Big Sky Conference favorite Weber State comes to Cheney, towed along by Damian Lillard, the nation’s leading scorer and an all-conference talent in any league.

“Arguably, ours will be the most interesting game in town that night,” said Hayford. “Will that make me too many enemies among the Gonzaga fans? I said ‘arguably.’”

Well, his mandate is to insert the Eagles into the conversation, even if he has to start it himself.

Eastern gave the Zags all they wanted in the season-opener seven weeks ago – still had a lead with just over six minutes to go, in fact – and is 7-7 making the turn into 2012. The losses, not unexpectedly, are mostly to the Pac-12 and the best of the West Coast Conference; the teams which have beaten EWU are 62-28 in other games.

By the same token, Eagles have taken care of business in the shoulda-wons and tossups – the notable exception being their last outing at Montana, where an 18-1 Grizzlies run wiped out a nine-point Eastern lead in the second half.

“When I’m close to it, it’s easy to get frustrated with a loss like that,” Hayford said. “When it’s pointed out to me that Eastern has only ever swept the Montana trip once, I can see a bigger picture. But that’s kind of how it is with coaching. You have one eye looking at a small detail through a magnifying glass, the other through a telescope.”

Hayford’s hiring at Eastern was no giant surprise – his record at Whitworth was stellar and he’s made a great many friends here. Still, few make it across that rickety rope-and-plank bridge from Division III basketball to a head coaching job in Division I.

Only seven others have done it in the past 12 years, and with mixed results. Dave Paulsen took Bucknell to the NCAAs in just his third season; Don Friday is 29-73 in three-plus years at St. Francis, Pa. The patron saint of the species, of course, is Bo Ryan, who went from Wisconsin-Platteville to Milwaukee to Wisconsin and has had the Badgers in the bracket 10 straight years.

Meanwhile, Phil Rowe was 45-125 in six years at New Hampshire.

It can be about the job, just as much as it is about the man.

The job bequeathed Hayford six Big Sky veterans in his nine-man rotation, one of the reasons his colleagues picked the Eagles to finish third this season – another being his recruitment of Collin Chiverton, EWU’s leading scorer who seems certain to be the league’s newcomer of the year.

“What I love about these guys is that they’ll say, ‘Whatever it takes to win, we’ll do it,’” Hayford said. “But when you come into these situations, it’s a little like being a stepparent – they didn’t pick you, and you didn’t pick them. So you have to show a lot of love.

“We’re trying to put in a system that calls for good decision-making and we’re taking care of the ball better than anybody in the Big Sky. It’s also free flowing and you get to shoot the 3-point shot and some days our judgment hasn’t been real good.”

But all in all, Hayford noted, “We’ve been more Jekyll than Hyde.”

Not always can that be said of other aspects of his new gig. At Whitworth, there was no athletic aid and a heavy academic spin; at EWU, each scholarship must be allotted carefully because the school must wrestle with the APR issues of retention and graduation. Already you’ve seen Hayford steer his recruiting beyond these shores and away from the big-city AAU quagmire.

“Recruiting has been ruthless,” he said. “There’s a lot of negative recruiting that goes on. I shouldn’t be surprised – I read the newspapers like everyone else – but it’s another thing when it happens to you.”

Goes down a little salty. But then, he’s in entirely different waters now.